Treating Whiplash the Osteopathic way

Many people who suffer from the pain of spinal injuries seek the help of osteopaths.

Osteopathy is a gentle and effective hands-on approach to healthcare, based on the principle that the way your body moves affects how it functions.

Osteopathic practitioners are state registered healthcare practitioners recognised by the NHS and capable of diagnosing and treating musculoskeletal (Muscles, bones and joints) problems independently. You do not need to see your GP prior to consulting an osteopath but in some cases the osteopath will refer you to your doctor if the nature of your problem requires medical treatment (

Evidence which reviewed scientific studies on the types of treatments used by osteopaths showed that these approaches were successful at helping to relieve the head and neck pain that often accompanies a whiplash injury (Gross et al,2002). The advantage of this gentle approach can mean that the patient is able to return to normal activities without surgery and with a reduced need to take medication.

A consultation with a registered osteopath will entail a full and detailed case history which will aim to get to the root of the problem. In addition to this the osteopath will perform detailed examination of your movements as well as clinical testing of the musculoskeletal and nervous systems as appropriate. Osteopathic treatment involves a range of techniques which focus on addressing dysfunctional changes in your body tissues which have resulted from excessive strain. These techniques will range from conventional soft tissue massage and manipulation to joint mobilisation and manipulation techniques which improve healthy movement of the muscles bones and joints. As a comprehensive approach to musculoskeletal pain and dysfunction osteopaths can also prescribe therapeutic exercise programmes which are tailored specifically for you and increase the benefits of the physical treatment they provide so as to get you back to a pain free state in the most effective and timely manner.

Many different structures are injured by whiplash. Due to the rapid extension (backward bending) of the neck during the initial stage of the injury the joints at the back of the neck are rapidly compressed. This can cause significant pain which lasts for a long time after the initial injury has subsided. In addition to this vulnerable nerves may be compressed as the forceful extension of the neck may pinch and bruise the sensitive roots of the nerves which exit the spine at the side of the neck. Many patients find that this is a cause of pain which travels down the arm after the initial injury has occurred. During the flexion phase of the whiplash injury the tissue at the back of the neck is stretched too quickly whilst during the extension phase of the neck the tissues at the front of the neck are stretched too quickly. This can result in painful muscle tears which cause swelling and inflammation as well as on-going spasm if they fail to heal optimally.

The effects of a whiplash injury can last for many months and sometimes years after the initial damage. This is in part due to the fact that the neck and spine is no longer moving in as natural and smooth a way as before. These changes make it harder for sufferers to withstand the stresses and strains of daily life such as housework, deskwork and moving objects. Interesting research (Weisberg 2000) also shows that the function of the muscles of the neck and jaw becomes disordered as the electromyographic (how the nerve sends impulses to the muscle) activity is altered. This pattern of muscular dysfunction can cause accelerated wear and tear on the delicate joints of the neck leading to arthritis and has also been shown to cause problems which increase the rate of age related wear and tear in the jaw joint (Garcia & Arrington 1996) which can lead to problems with eating and speaking later on.

After your osteopath has examined you they will typically use advanced soft tissue massage techniques to relax tight and painful muscles as well as gentle joint mobilisation and stretching to restore function to spinal joints which have stiffened up due to the trauma of the whiplash injury. Most often the osteopath will examine and treat joints in other parts of the spine such as the mid and lower back which due to their connection to the neck may be reacting to the initial injury. Depending on your individual case there may be issues such as previous injuries and existing problems with any of the body’s tissues which are aggravated by the whiplash injury. When this is the case your osteopath will treat these areas as well in order to reduce the cumulative strain on the whole body and allow you to move optimally and heal faster.

An important aspect of osteopathic treatment is to prescribe exercises which you can do between treatments. Rehabilitative exercises for whiplash injuries are aimed at improving function and reducing strain on the damaged areas of your spine. The osteopath will usually give these during the first or second treatment and will carefully monitor and adjust the exercise plan as your body changes with treatment. Depending on the extent of your whiplash injury the osteopath may need to see you a number of times however most patients with spinal pain find significant relief after 2-6 sessions.

(Garcia & Arrington 1996)The relationship between cervical whiplash and temporomandibular joint injuries: an MRI study. Cranio : the Journal of Craniomandibular Practice [1996, 14(3):233-239]

Gross et al 2002. Manual therapy for mechanical neck disorders: a systematic review. Manual Therapy. Volume 7, Issue 3, August 2002, Pages 131–149

Weisberg 2000. The craniocervical connection:A retrospective analysis of 300 whiplash patients with cervical and temporomandibular disorders. Cranio 18(3):163-167, 2000.